July 13, 2020

Staff pick: Maggie O’Farrell's "Hamnet"

This book can be found here.

“She cannot understand it. She, who can hear the dead, the unspoken, the unknown, who can touch a person and listen to the creep of disease along the veins, can sense the dark velvet press of a tumour on a lung or a liver, can read a person’s eye and heart like some can read a book. She cannot find, she cannot locate the spirit of her own child.”
[The sibling however] “hears [them] in the swish of a broom against the floor…in the winged dip of a bird over the wall…in the shake of a pony’s mane, in the smattering of hail against the pane, in the wind reaching its arm down the chimney, in the rustle of the rushes that make up … the … den’s roof.” p. 298

The book opens with Hamnet finding his sister, Judith, ill in bed and when he looks for the rest of the crowded household, no-one is home. His father is away in London, his mother in the fields at her old home farm where she grows medicinal plants. His grandparents and other household members are out on various errands in Stratford.

The book is based on Shakespeare’s family of which very little is known. What is known has been taken and woven into a beautiful story of love and loss. A story of the Latin tutor, giving lessons to pay off his father’s debts and meeting his future wife; a strong and individual woman with gifts of her own. A story of parents whose connection is very strong but is sorely tested by the loss of a child. A story of the love between twin children. The story does not feature Shakespeare’s life in the theatre world which stays mostly on the sidelines: the meat of this story is how people deal individually and together with their sorrow.

And there is an interesting side story on how the plague came to Stratford via some enterprising fleas and the thriving trade with the Mediterranean ports. And some beautiful descriptions; e.g. kittens with “faces like pansies and soft pads on their paws”. All the senses are engaged as O’Farrell takes us to bedrooms, kitchens, workrooms and fields.

I have liked anything I have read by Maggie O’Farrell but she lifts to another level here. Her prose is beautiful, luminous and enthralling. Her characters are complete people with strengths and weaknesses, bluster and frailties. Her speculation based on such few facts and a lot of research into the period is believable. Her people spring off the page as if you had just passed the time of day with them in the marketplace on your way to buy gloves from John Shakespeare.

This is a very readable and engaging book. I am happy to learn it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

-- Wendy

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